My old friend Stu Crawford recently pulled up his van in front of the house. Through an open window he asked if I would like to spend part of Remembrance Day at his house. Normally, such an invitation is tempting enough in its own right, as Stu is a warm, witty fellow with a razor-sharp memory that helps him come up with an endless series of facts and stories, few of which he starred in.
Retired flying officer Crawford is also a World War II veteran, a rapidly disappearing race. In his new book, [1945:TheYearTheModernCanadaMade[1945:hetjaardathetmoderneCanadamaakte, local author Ken Cuthbertson cites Stu, one of only 30,000 of the 1.1 million Canadian World War II veterans still with us.
“I’m going to open my old suitcase on Remembrance Day,” says Stu, referring to the one-handed “barracks chest” he received in 1943 during a shooting range training in Fergel, Ont. “I don’t think it’s opened since I got home in 1945. Come on and we’ll open it up.”
“I’m here, Stu,” I answer, and then immediately saw grenades stuffed in socks, unexploded ordnance, or worse, squadrons of moths.
On the appointed day, Stu greets me at his front door. ‘Come on in. Nice to see you … nice to see you everybody‘, He says, accentuating masterfully on the last word, a timeless quip from a man who turns 99 in March.
Stu’s barrack chest awaits on the living room floor. The dark green rectangular trunk is one meter long, half a meter wide and about the same depth, with ID information printed on the lid. Before tapping the lock, Stu fiddles with another gadget attached to the key ring. “My safety pin,” he says of the thin tweezer-like metal pin that has the same function as the safety on a gun. As a bomb aimer, Crawford would remove the pin in preparation for releasing the load from Lancaster’s bombs.
He last did this as a 23-year-old on April 9, 1945, during a bombing raid on the German city of Hamburg. However, on the flight home to England, the bomber’s two starboard engines caught fire. As the “Lanc” was rapidly losing altitude, pilot Hugh Cram ordered the crew to jump.
Seventy-five years later, Crawford tosses the key ring on the trunk and picks up that part of the chilling ordeal he shared with me for an article on Remembrance Day 2012 in this journal. Stu worked at the Whig-Standard for 37 years, many of them as circulation managers, but no one at work had ever heard of that war adventure.
All seven crew members jumped from the paralyzed plane. Crawford, in his parachute, drifted in pitch black over enemy territory. He was alone and scared. In the distance he saw the doomed Lancaster crash and catch fire. He felt all 23.
On the ground, Stu met crew member Curly McGrath. They walked through the night together and entered a small German town where white linens hung from the windows and a white flannel sheet flew from a flagpole: a city under surrender. McGrath pushed up the pole, grabbed the sheet, ripped it in half, and gave his traveling companion half. They were soon rescued by Allied forces.
“This is it,” said Mary, Stu’s wife of 61, who returned from another room with the piece of pearly flannel sheet kept in a folder along with photos, clippings and telegrams – including this shocking message from an RCAF. victim officer to young enlisted man’s parents: “REGRET TO REPORT YOUR SON PILOT OFFICER FRANCIS STUART CRAWFORD … MISSING REPORT AFTER AIR OPERATIONS OVERSEAS NINTH APRIL.”
When Stu opens the box, it turns out there are “just a few old uniforms and some other stuff,” as he predicted. But there are plenty of other treasures too. While examining them, Stu waves on a non-stop flight to Memoryland.
Among the more interesting mementos are stubs from the Mutual Theater Ticket Co., 154th West St. 48th St., NYC, reminiscent of the returning aviator’s post-war leave of absence in the Big Apple. A torn ducat from “A Night with the Andrew Sisters” evokes a memory. “One of the sisters was sick that night,” Stu recalls. And guess who’s replacing them and walking across the stage with his raincoat slung casually over his shoulder? Sinatra. What a night!”
Stu’s ID cards, a whistle, a pocket knife and a sewing kit are among the assorted items that come in one of the small cardboard boxes, each tucked onto the lid. A maroon suede watch box reminds Stu of his mother, Frances. “My mom bought me that watch just before I signed up,” he recalls. “I wore it abroad all the time … still have it.”
“Oh look, Stuart!” Mary exclaims as she reaches into the trunk. “Your balls!” She grins as she holds up two ping pong balls. That puts Stu – a gifted athlete at the time who played local senior baseball and peer hockey at Queen’s – on a table tennis story about older brother Don, whom he revered.
A label on one of the two sealed ration boxes, a Type K Dinner Unit, states the contents: biscuits, a can of cheese, four lumps of sugar, four cigarettes, a book of 10 matches, a packet of candy, and a piece of chewing gum.
By the end of my two-hour visit, with half of the trunk’s contents spread out in front of him and the other half still waiting to be rediscovered, Stu slumps back in his chair. He’s a bit torn, and I suspect he’s somewhat overwhelmed by the mountain of memories that have yet to be evoked. “Oh, Patrick,” he sighs with a smile, “I wish I had never opened this damn suitcase.”
While Mary watches, he slowly pulls out a thick bundle of letters, one of the many packages in the trunk.
“Oh my … look,” he says as I say goodbye. He throws his arms in the air and says to no one in particular, “I really did it to myself this time.”
Happy trails, Stu.
Patrick Kennedy is a retired Whig-Standard reporter. He can be reached via [email protected]